New Rep's "King of 2nd Ave": The Law and the Profits

Ken Cheeseman, Kathy St. George & Remo Airaldi in "The King of Second Avenue"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

What, you say, another klezmer musical? New Rep's world premiere of “The King of Second Avenue” is just that, a story with klezmer music provided by an on-stage band, about a con man who outwits a successful Hollywood producer, swindling him out of his money, his home and his self-respect. Based on the classic 1894 picaresque novella “The King of Schnorrers” by British author Israel Zangwill (whose parents had emigrated to Britain from Latvia and Poland), it's an updated comedy that respects the author's original intent. Often referred to as the “Dickens of the ghetto”, Zangwill was a satiric genius. His use of the term “schnorrers” in his novel was not in the more pejorative contemporary sense, but refers more to a “beggar”; not one who directly begs, but who habitually obtains his needs by politely and insistently borrowing things (with no intention of returning them). What further distinguishes him from the sterotypical beggar is his endless chutzpah or shamelessness. Zangwill's work was the basis of two prior failed musicalizations, one in 1968 by composer Bernard Herrmann (better known for his film scores, notably “Psycho” and other Hitchcock efforts) and a short-lived 1979 Broadway musical by Judd Woldin. The present production boasts Book and Lyrics by Robert Brustein and Music by Hankus Netsky, with Direction by Matthew “Motl” Didner and Choreography by Merete Muenter. Brustein orginally used the book's title but says he decided that the current title referencing Second Avenue “grounded the play more in its adapted modern period”. As such it becomes a satirical jab at the inequality of wealth between the out-of-work actors of the dying Yiddish Theater and those purveyors of schlock that profited from successfully gauging the public's lack of taste. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate the humor, but it probably helps, given the lexicon of Yiddish expressions used throughout the play. Then again, you may be better off not catching all the allusions; perhaps, in this case at least, ignorance is briss.

The Jewish Law (orTorah) commanded that one's profits be shared with those less fortunate. As Joseph Stein wrote in the libretto of another Jewish-themed musical you may have heard of, “Fiddler on the Roof”, the beggar Nahum, when told why the butcher was giving him half his usual alms because he'd had a less profitable week in the butcher shop, says “So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”. Here updated to a sort of Romeo and Juliet theme in the lower east side of 1960's Manhattan, with antagonistic Jewish sects, we find the Sephardic actor Da Costa (Will LeBow, with that magnificent voice, though going up on more than a few lines, which will probably dissolve with subsequent performances), “down on his luck”, as they say, who tricks Joseph E. Lapidus (Jeremiah Kissel, obviously having a ball with his delivery), a successful Hollywood producer (and Ashkenazic) . Meanwhile, Da Costa's daughter Dolores (the beautifully voiced Abby Goldfarb) is courted by both Lapidus' ill-behaved son Joe Jr. (Alex Pollock, perfectly cast) and one of her father's fellow beggars, Schmuelly (Remo Airaldi, at his most hilariously rubber-faced). Also along for this tempestuous ride are Lapidus' wife Rosalie (Kathy St. George, giving another hysterically funny turn) and his “man”, Wilkinson (Ken Cheeseman, a haughty hoot). What follows are basically con games and swindles, as well as a schmear of true love.

The technical crew is along for the ride as well, with clever and versatile Scenic Design by Jon Savage, amusing Costume Design by Frances McSherry, striking Lighting Design by Natalie Robin, perfectly synchronized complex Sound Design by Mike Stanton and the very clever Choreography by Muenter. The band plays well, given that klezmer music isn't the most diverse or varied source for a complete score (rather like listening to a full evening of bagpipers); many of the dozen and a half short tunes are too similar to one another. This is often intentional, as with “A Piece of Fish” and “A Pair of Pants”. St. George does get to do a funny parody of a torch song, though. But the success of the work is in Brustein's book (perilously close to what killed vaudeville and burlesque) and lyrics (surprisingly nimble). A lot of the puns are painful (and this critic would be hypercritical as well as hypocritical to object to same), so close to over-the-top that, in the wrong hands, it could spell disaster. It's a tribute to this all-star cast that the production is as stellar as it is, and that, thanks to their joyousness, understanding the rather circumscribed text doesn't require circumcision.

What saves this work is the obvious affection of both the creative team and the performers for the traditions they are skewering, as well as (to quote DaCosta near the end of the play) their “panache”. Even if hyperventilated comedy isn't typically your thing, this show should melt the hearts and minds of any audience in recovery from snow overload. Successful farce, especially as presented by non-British actors, is a rarity. Happily, this regal schnorrer is one in a minyan.

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